Earlier this year, Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who has long been a proponent for tearing down the aging Mobile Civic Center, unveiled a plan by the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies to replace it. While Cordish’s initial concept saved the smaller theater, it did not include any plans to renovate or rebuild the larger arena. They instead proposed an outdoor green space that would be surrounded by “themed” bars, restaurants and retail they would bring in.
This plan was not very well received, to put it kindly. Not by the neighborhood surrounding it, not by the downtown restaurateurs or by the Mardi Gras societies who would have been left without a venue in which to hold their annual balls and receptions.
And not by this columnist, who may have been a bit harsh in her criticism of the proposal. My sincerest apologies to Guy Fieri, who did not deserve the attacks I lodged against him, his restaurants, hair, man jewelry and general cheeseballery. He didn’t do a thing to deserve this. Cordish had just brought in several of his restaurant concepts to their developments in other cities, and I was being snarky about the possibility of one his taco shacks coming here. Sorry, Guy!
But Guy Fieri’s flaming fire shirts aside, once it was announced the arena would be no more, many of us wondered, in addition to the homeless Mardi Gras balls, what we would do with the tennis, wrestling, gymnastics and other sporting events that had already been using the arena, and worried we would be left without a space to accommodate events larger than ones the Saenger or Civic Center theaters could possibly handle. Would we lose those and the people they put in our hotels and restaurants? That can’t happen!
In addition, we would basically be handing any major concert or show coming to the area over to Biloxi or Pensacola forever. I mean, they’re nice cities and all, but that concession cannot stand!
Everyone acknowledges the Civic Center (in its current state) is a huge drain on city coffers, and tearing it down even sounded like a reasonable plan at first. But once the rollers and track chains on the bulldozer seemed like they may actually be in motion, I think many of us had second thoughts.
In the immortal words of ‘80s glam metal band Cinderella, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” Or in this case, until it is about to be gone.
And the thought of this caused citizens and stakeholders alike to “cry, cry, cry,” as the Man in Black once sang. (OK, I’m done with the song references for now.)
To his credit, Mayor Sandy Stimpson listened to these cry, cry, cries and on Tuesday announced his plan to scale back the Cordish Live! component of the project (sorry, Guy!) and to keep and renovate the Civic Center arena and theater.
Plans for the property would also include a promenade connecting the venues and a large parking deck that could help accommodate more passenger parking for the Cruise Terminal and/or a second ship.
Stimpson’s proposal also includes some office space as well as residential units, but the residential component wouldn’t be a large apartment complex like another company had suggested, which was a deal-breaker for many of the residents of Church Street East.
The overall plan would also leave space for other possibilities like hotels or even a baseball stadium.
While it is unclear if Cordish will still want to participate now that their component has been scaled back, Mayor Stimpson said they would still proceed and put the money they had already slated for this project into renovating the arena first. And then complete the rest in phases.
I know this is all still in the planning stages, and it would no doubt be a major undertaking, but this is exactly the kind of project our tax dollars should support.
I am quite certain this isn’t going to please everyone, but the plans I have seen so far look like an excellent compromise and fulfill many of the wants and needs of the stakeholders involved, who all have different goals and concerns.
I’m sure some will even still argue we just need to tear it down and replace it with nothing or let private companies develop it all on their own dime. But I think that is shortsighted.
We don’t have to renovate it into Madison Square Garden, but we need a functional space that can be used for Mardi Gras, sports, music, job fairs, monster truck shows, dinosaur exhibits, recitals, graduations and countless other events enjoyed by our citizenry. It would be hard to name a city our size that doesn’t have an arena. We already know all of the existing events we have at these venues have a huge economic impact on our city. Imagine if we had even more!
I had pretty much written off the Civic Center as being practically dead years ago, even though that was more perception than reality. But if the mayor’s new plan gets the green light, it’s very exciting to think about all of the possibilities and events a new-and-improved arena could bring to our great city.
I’d have to say I’m more excited than the tips of Guy Fieri’s hair on frosting day!
As Nina Simone once sang (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about plans to renovate a civic center), “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me and I’m feeling good!”
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